Rocky Hill public health lab still faces opposition

Democrats and a local union from Rocky Hill were successful last month in stalling funding for a public health laboratory in Rocky Hill, but the project’s chances look better when Gov. M. Jodi Rell brings it up for a vote again today.

Democrats on the State Bond Commission last month blocked release of $69.4 million for the lab that will test for the West Nile virus, rabies, influenza and anthrax, saying that Rocky Hill legislators and the community weren’t given enough notice of the proposal.

After an informational hearing in town, two local legislators and area residents are opposing the plan, but there appear to be enough votes on the bond commission to approve the funding today.

Rell’s office received a letter on Monday from Rep. Antonio Guerrera, D-Rocky Hill and Sen. Paul R. Doyle, D-Wethersfield, along with a petition signed by more than 300 Rocky Hill residents, asking that she choose an alternative location.

“We object to the Rocky Hill location for many reasons,” said Doyle and Guerrera in the letter, calling the location on 22 acres near the state Veterans Home and Hospital and a residential neighborhood on West Street, “an unacceptable public safety and health risk.”

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Current state Department of Public Health laboratory in Hartford (DPH photo)

The current public health laboratory is in a 45-year-old building a few blocks from the Capitol in Hartford. William Gerrish, a spokesman for the state Department of Public Health, said the proposed new laboratory will test the exact same substances. Gerrish says a new building is needed because the current building has asbestos and the ventilation, electric and cooling systems are “quickly deteriorating.”

When Democrats outmaneuvered Rell to stall the project at the last Bond Commission meeting, they said they just wanted time to address an anonymous scare flier that had been circulated in the neighborhood of the proposed lab. Headlined “Meet your new neighbors,” the flier warns of toxic agents threatening the well-being of the community.

No contact information for the flier’s author was given, though it is attributed to the Construction Workers for a Safe Environment — an unknown group to many officials and legislators.

Since then, several members of the Rocky Hill Local 40 Sheet Metal Workers International Association have acknowledged that they were responsible for distributing the fliers. They said

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Rendering of the new laboratory planned for Rocky Hill (DPH photo)

they are concerned because only a few of the lowest bidders on the project are members of Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association, a trade group of union contractors.

Among other things, the group sets standards for the sheet metal industry.

“The guidelines our employees must abide by are strict. For a job like this, if you are following all those guidelines you are going to get a higher price tag,” said Dave Roche, business manager of Local 40. “The state is going to use the low bidder, but you don’t want just anyone putting something like this together. I am concerned.”

Only two of the 31 recommended contractors for the project are SMACNA members, said Jeremy Zeedyk, marketing representative for Local 40.

Gerrish said the work will be done according to SMACNA standards regardless of who gets the job.

“The laboratory is also regulated by 14 other agencies to make sure the laboratory is in compliance with all applicable standards of safety and operation,” he said, adding experts will be on-site daily to ensure the building is constructed properly.

That doesn’t bolster Zeedyk’s confidence.

“Inspectors are only as good as the things they look at. They cannot see everything,” he said.

The dispute is likely to draw to a close today, as Rell only needs one additional vote on the Bond Commission. The motion to release the funds died in a 5-5 vote along party lines during the last meeting.

Sen. Eileen M. Daily, D-Westbrook, said she is confident the public’s health will not be at risk and plans to vote in favor of releasing the funds this time.

The state has until April 15 to accept the current bids offered.